A Coalition Government and the fate of the NDIS

Associate Professor Gemma Carey (UNSW) explains the likely consequences of the new government for Australia’s landmark disability insurance scheme.

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Despite being our largest and most complex social policy reform, the NDIS didn’t receive much attention in the recent election campaign until its close. We could read something into this about how political parties think the NDIS plays with the electorate, but irrespective of political perceptions and prioritising the fact remains that the NDIS affects the lives of not just its 460 000 participants, but their families, carers, and more than 35 00 workers.

Prior to the election, Scott Morrison announced he would raise prices in the NDIS. This came on the back of a large campaign and is serious win for the sector. Close to 30% of providers were operating at a loss in 2018, which appears to be growing from previous years. The sector, and the people who depend on it, cannot afford to lose 30% of operators. 

In their budget response, Labor somewhat ambiguously promised to ‘get the NDIS back on track’. Few details emerged until the end of the campaign, when Bill Shorten announced that all funds earmarked for the NDIS would be placed in an NDIS fund – ensuring they were not used for other purposes. This Labor promise was brought about by the Coalition Government claiming $1.6 billion of unspent NDIS funds as part of its budget surplus. But this wasn’t an achievement of efficiency. ‘Planned underspend’ – or ‘Budget surplus’ in this case – represents unmet needs within the community. Many people eligible for the NDIS still do not have plans, and those with plans do not necessarily have services. 

One critical Labor promise on the NDIS, which went largely unnoticed, was a promise to lift the staffing cap on the main implementation agency – the NDIA. The cap came into play as part of Abbott’s small government agenda, affecting the whole Australian Public Service along with serious consequences for the new NDIS agency. The NDIA has repeatedly been found to be ineffective in areas such as plan implementation and market management, which in part stem from under staffing. The staffing cap on the NDIA has effected every aspect of smooth implementation of the NDIS; everything from the infamous portal collapse, to plan review wait times, to market challenges can be traced back to under resourcing in the NDIA. 

Photo by  Ryan Everton  on  Unsplash

Photo by Ryan Everton on Unsplash

Not only did the hopes of the Labor Party and its supports dwindle as the results rolled in on Saturday night, but so too did those playing close attention to the NDIS. The staffing cap will remain in place under the Coalition Government – risking further implementation problems. 

The Coalition has promised to make the NDIS a priority. Hopefully this translates into protecting NDIS dollars, addressing the issues raised by the Joint Standing Committee on the NDIS and continuing to commit to changes where required such as higher prices. 

But prioritising the NDIS also requires a nuanced understanding of how actions elsewhere in government are affecting the scheme. This is something we are yet to see from the Coalition Government. 

 A more cynical view would be to interpret actions such as the staffing cap and the outsourcing of key scheme components as an attack on the NDIS by stealth. An approach that targets the largely non-visible machinations of government administration, away from the eyes of the community.